I understand now why The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is on every reading list imaginable. I picked it up at our fabulous local library quite by accident. You see, I have this bad habit (since I haven’t remembered to take the speakers from our old home desktop to work with me so that I can enjoy all those podcasts I am drooling to hear) of going into the library and grazing on audio books. Reading this way has almost guaranteed that I will not finish every book I start, because I have found that it’s much harder to tolerate a terrible book (or a book I don’t cotton to) when I’m listening to it.

So my courtship with Grapes started innocently enough – I checked out the 20-CD book without really paying attention to just how long it is (OK, maybe it’s only 15 CDs…). As usually happens, I had to renew it; as has never happened before, I couldn’t renew it because some other enterprising person had it reserved (ah, summer reading lists!). I was about halfway through the book at that point, and I couldn’t stand it – I just had to continue on. Back I trudged, to get the old, beat-up, thoroughly charming hard copy of Grapes. And into the couch I burrowed, emitting a “I can’t believe this!” every now and again so my husband would know I was still alive in those precious evening hours I had to read.

The narrator’s voice stayed in my head. Had I not started off listening, I’m not sure I would have been able to get into it quickly; like Mark Twain, Steinbeck uses dialect nearly exclusively in his dialogue. That can be forgiven, though, by the multi-faceted characters that jumped off the page. I’m pretty sure Ruthie or Winfield is going to jump out at me from behind a corner in my old house.

The Grapes of Wrath should be required reading. It’s a slice of America that we’d probably just as soon forget, but we shouldn’t forget. It’s a heartbreaking tale of how technology can create desperation, because of the ways of life it wipes out – the novel starts by introducing us to the tractors that drive the sharecroppers off their land.

What really struck me was the slice of life that Steinbeck paints. I’m not a good student of history, and as I try to read historical books, I really struggle (either I tune them out and have to keep hitting rewind, or I put off reading (yes, me!) the book until it’s got a layer of dust on the cover). This book tricked me into paying attention to history, and it made me care. One chapter would be about the Joads, and their struggle to head west, and then to find work and survive. Alternating chapters would paint the larger picture, letting the reader know that it wasn’t just a tale of one family, that the Joads were representative of thousands of other families.

How do we react to the poor and the downtrodden in our lives? How do we help the needy? How do we turn our backs in disgust? I couldn’t help but feel a pointed finger and shiver, thinking of my baby being born dead because I didn’t have proper nutrition when all the crops were rotting in the fields. I couldn’t help but like Tom and root for the preacher, and I saw just what a union is supposed to do – stop those rich bastards from pay 10-cents when a man can’t live on less than 20.

If you haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath, give it a try. You can probably find it free from a podcast (Julie at Happy Catholic has pointed out some nifty ones recently), or your local library might also have it.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jelly Pinched Wolf for a totally new perspective on Grapes. Read his thoughts here. Thanks to Julie at Happy Catholic for the link. I have to say, this makes me want to reread it in light of some of the things JPW points out!